Leslie Karen Hammond, newly elected president of the Southeastern Connecticut Women’s Network, has driven a forklift at the Dow Chemical plant in Gales Ferry, worked as a gate guard at UBS Building Supply in Niantic and donned a hard hat while overseeing construction work as a project manager for the Mystic River Building Co., but her defining moment as a young woman may have been her reaction to being called “dear.”
“I took offense to it,” she says. “I’d tell them, ‘Do I have antlers growing out of the top of my head?’ … You don’t let people be condescending. … You give it right back.”
Hammond has mellowed over the years, but she still uses a direct approach, tempered by respect and honesty, when dealing with people. And, in an industry where women are still in a distinct minority, she has managed to thrive, just last month being named one of the dozen “Women of FIRE” in Connecticut by The Commercial Record for her role as a leader among people in the finance, insurance and real estate fields.
She credits her grandmother, the late Charlotte Kerr, the first female draftsperson at Electric Boat, for inspiring her to launch a career in a field where few women are known to tread.
“She was a little powerhouse of a woman,” Hammond recalls. “She didn’t take crap from anybody.”
Nort Wheeler, owner of the Mystic River Building Co., says he hired Hammond on a hunch more than two decades ago at UBS, seeing something in her direct manner and eagerness that he liked. He recalls that Hammond soaked up information like a sponge, and would come to him after her shift as a gate guard with a list of questions she had about products sold at the home center.
Within a few months, she had retained so much information that she asked for and received a transfer to the sales counter.
“It wasn’t long before she became the best salesperson on the counter,” Wheeler recalls.
“It was a great learning environment,” Hammond says. “All the contractors were terrific.”
Wheeler later left UBS to build houses at the Chapman Woods senior-housing complex in East Lyme for Orvedal Builders, and he later brought Hammond onboard, thinking she would be a great fit as a client liaison — someone who helps guide homeowners through the building process. Hammond, after a stint with McDonald’s learning leadership skills and another period with UBS that culminated in her promotion to store manager, was ready for a new challenge, even though she knew she had a lot to learn.
“Nothing drives me crazier than people who think they can’t do something,” she says.
Hammond’s philosophy that we need each other to be successful translates into some of her community work, most notably with the Women’s Network, where one of her major goals is to develop a more diversified membership. She would like to see people from Pfizer Inc., General Dynamics and local governments join the group, for instance, along with the business people who predominate today.
“We have one of the most progressive boards in southeastern Connecticut,” Hammond says.
Hammond just this past September organized an event called “Building Community” that sought connections in a similar vein. Among the speakers for this independently organized TEDx event (Technology, Entertainment, Design) were Steve Sigel, managing director of the Garde Arts Center, Trisha McAvoy of Blissworks Yoga in New London and Hammond’s husband, Mark Roberts, corporate director of the TseTse Gallery in New London.
Hammond, who has a son Josh from a previous marriage, met Roberts at another event she hosted, a fire ceremony at her New London home just last year that she holds the first Saturday of every month closest to the full moon. The ceremony involves the burning of sage outside along with a potluck supper and ceremony inside during which people are asked to share something about themselves and then are given the suggestion to release a feeling or a thought that is no longer working in their lives.
“The idea is to remind people to be grateful for everything, to find a gift in it,” Hammond says. “Everybody has a gift. We are all put here for a very specific purpose. We are given lots of opportunities to discover it.”
The fire ceremony, which mixes aspects of her Native American heritage (she is Taos Pueblo Indian on her mother’s side) and Andean shaman practices, is part of Hammond’s long journey into the spiritual dimension. It’s a quest that has led her to gain healing experience as a reiki master, put her on a path toward shamanic spirituality and brought her regularly to the jungles of Peru, where she enjoys the simple way of life and admires the infinite varieties of snakes and bugs.
“It’s like being hugged by your mother — like being in the womb of the earth,” she says of the jungle. “It’s so peaceful to me.”
While peace may be what she craves, Hammond acknowledges that she tends to be a hard charger, always challenging herself to make the most of life. Among her pursuits have been skydiving, firewalking, fire eating and scuba diving.
“I don’t like the comfort zone,” she says.
One of her goals, Hammond says, is to help others achieve their ambitions by having them channel their dreams and inspirations toward their purpose in life. So, at the encouragement of a member of her fire-ceremony circle, she wrote a self-published book last year titled “Tap Your Source” that helps people work toward discovering their potential and embracing life’s transitions.
“The more we resist transition, the more difficult it becomes,” she says in the book. “The more we blame others for our circumstance, the more likely we will miss the value in the opportunity we have been given.”
“She’s very positive,” says husband Mark. “She won’t embrace a negative perspective on anything. She looks for the good in everybody.”